“All the intellectuals were communist except me. I’m always very perverse so I went in for T.S. Eliot and Anglo-Catholicism.”– Elizabeth Bishop
Elizabeth Bishop, born on this day, is one of my favorite poets. She didn’t write all that many poems during her life (compared to other poets who lived as long as she did). She was meticulous, picking and choosing every word with the utmost care. She was not hugely famous during her lifetime, although famous enough to be Poet Laureate from 1949-1950. However, since her death, her reputation has skyrocketed.
I want to point you towards Andrew Chan’s beautiful piece about Elizabeth Bishop in 4 Columns. I’ve been a guest on podcasts a couple of times alongside Andrew – and Elizabeth Bishop had never come up. Of course. We were too busy talking about James Brown or Aretha Franklin. So when this piece went up, I was so excited to discover Andrew was also a “fellow traveler” Elizabeth Bishop fan!
Born in 1911 in Massachusetts, Bishop had a harrowing childhood. Her father died when she was a baby. Her mother was mentally ill and eventually institutionalized. Elizabeth’s grandparents raised her initially, but then an aunt on her father’s side of the family got custody and she was moved off to live with them. She didn’t really know them, she missed her grandparents, she developed asthma. She experienced complete despair from before she was 10 years old. Bishop’s aunt was very poor, and the Bishop grandparents sent her money for the care of Elizabeth. The two lived in a tenement in a terrible neighborhood. It was Bishop’s aunt introduced her to poetry. So there’s that at least. Bishop was a sickly child (exacerbated by the grief and disorientation of being essentially an orphan). Bishop rarely went to school. She was self- and aunt-educated. She ended up going to Vassar, thinking she would be a composer or a musician (music was her first love), but she had also started writing and publishing poems by that early point. She started a literary magazine with her classmate Mary McCarthy. She graduated from Vassar in 1934.
Because her dead father had been successful financially, she had a big inheritance. She was independently wealthy. This fact helped shape Bishop. Unlike a lot of other artists starting out, she never had to take a day job. She never had to teach or do anything to make ends meet. She was extremely shy, maybe even crippled by it (although her letters reveal she was not a shrinking wall-flower personality to her friends and lovers: she was bubbly, funny, and irrepressible, with a great eye for the perfect anecdote.) She traveled the world. She did not huddle in New York City like many of her fellow poets, who jostled for seats at the bar in Greenwich Village. She was out of the country. She lived in Brazil. She finally settled down in Key West.
Introduced to Robert Lowell in 1947, they formed an intimate kinship almost immediately, starting up a correspondence that continued for the rest of their lives (the correspondence was recently published and it’s amazing: Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell). It was a symbiotic artistic marriage.
It was Elizabeth Bishop who reached out to Robert Lowell, after reading one of his poems. She admitted:
It took me an hour or so to get back to my own metre.
I am interested in how Lowell and Bishop affected each other in their work. They traded drafts back and forth, making comments and critiques. They took each other’s work seriously enough to engage with it, be honest about what didn’t work. Lowell valued Bishop’s input, and vice versa. Lowell was much more famous in his own day than Elizabeth Bishop. He was part of a “trend,” the “confessional” trend, and this trend created his fame and notoriety. His subject matter was startlingly personal. Mental illness, hospitalizations, electric shock … all made their way into his poetry. In the Freudian 50s, this was heady stuff. He was a huge influence on people like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton (Plath and Sexton took a class with Lowell, and the three would go out for drinks afterwards. Can you imagine the intensity?)
Lowell described in his poems his hospitalizations for mental breakdowns, a shocking admission at the time. As much as I love him, his stuff doesn’t hold up as well as Bishop’s. Her poems may seem descriptive and distant, in comparison to Lowell’s searing tell-alls, but once you get inside of them, you realize just how personal is every word, how exquisitely placed each image. The pictures she puts in your mind (her famous moose, the famous fish-houses) stay there forever.
For a long time Bishop was known as a “poet’s poet,” but her appeal is much broader than that would suggest. She has a lot in common with Robert Frost: there’s an uneasy gorgeous mix of grandeur and everyday-ness. She wrote about “small” things: ocean waves, a moose, fishing rods, as did Frost, with his poems about an axe, a snowfall, an apple. Yet nobody could say they were “surface” poets. They are extremely personal poets. Bishop wasn’t personal like Robert Lowell was personal, but she – SHE – was IN every single word. “Shampoo” – a beautiful same-sex love poem – is as explicit as Bishop ever got.
The still explosions on the rocks,
the lichens, grow
by spreading, gray, concentric shocks.
They have arranged
to meet the rings around the moon, although
within our memories they have not changed.
And since the heavens will attend
as long on us,
you’ve been, dear friend,
precipitate and pragmatical;
and look what happens. For Time is
nothing if not amenable.
The shooting stars in your black hair
in bright formation
are flocking where,
so straight, so soon?
–Come, let me wash it in this big tin basin,
battered and shiny like the moon.
Bishop’s poem “One Art” stands out. Rare for her, she speaks as “I”. The poem’s form is quite formal – a villanelle – so strict!, with a rhyme scheme and rhythmic repetition. (You can feel the influence of her soulmate Robert Lowell in “One Art”, even though the expression is all hers.) So we have this very strict form, and all this WILD chaotic feeling.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
–Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
God, that parenthetical KILLS ME.
Seamus Heaney, in a lecture on Elizabeth Bishop, makes the observation that if you read “One Art” out loud, it’s not clear that the word “Write” is not “Right.” A listener couldn’t see the word on the page. It could go either way. The “write” command works as “Right” as well, like: “CORRECT it.” “RIGHT what has been made wrong.” Brilliant!
It’s a toss-up as to what is her best-known poem. There are two that make it into the anthologies the most: “At the Fishhouses” and “One Art”.
Every time I read “At the Fishhouses” I am lulled into almost a dream-space where her images work on me in unexpected ways. It’s difficult for me to describe how this poem works. There’s something about it that feels inevitable. And yet HOW? WHY? It’s an accumulation of details. But it’s not just descriptive. Something else is being expressed. The poem is so tactile, you almost get cold reading it. But again, HOW this works is beyond me. It’s her genius.
At the Fishhouses
Although it is a cold evening,
down by one of the fishhouses
an old man sits netting,
his net, in the gloaming almost invisible,
a dark purple-brown,
and his shuttle worn and polished.
The air smells so strong of codfish
it makes one’s nose run and one’s eyes water.
The five fishhouses have steeply peaked roofs
and narrow, cleated gangplanks slant up
to storerooms in the gables
for the wheelbarrows to be pushed up and down on.
All is silver: the heavy surface of the sea,
swelling slowly as if considering spilling over,
is opaque, but the silver of the benches,
the lobster pots, and masts, scattered
among the wild jagged rocks,
is of an apparent translucence
like the small old buildings with an emerald moss
growing on their shoreward walls.
The big fish tubs are completely lined
with layers of beautiful herring scales
and the wheelbarrows are similarly plastered
with creamy iridescent coats of mail,
with small iridescent flies crawling on them.
Up on the little slope behind the houses,
set in the sparse bright sprinkle of grass,
is an ancient wooden capstan,
cracked, with two long bleached handles
and some melancholy stains, like dried blood,
where the ironwork has rusted.
The old man accepts a Lucky Strike.
He was a friend of my grandfather.
We talk of the decline in the population
and of codfish and herring
while he waits for a herring boat to come in.
There are sequins on his vest and on his thumb.
He has scraped the scales, the principal beauty,
from unnumbered fish with that black old knife,
the blade of which is almost worn away.
Down at the water’s edge, at the place
where they haul up the boats, up the long ramp
descending into the water, thin silver
tree trunks are laid horizontally
across the gray stones, down and down
at intervals of four or five feet.
Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,
element bearable to no mortal,
to fish and to seals . . . One seal particularly
I have seen here evening after evening.
He was curious about me. He was interested in music;
like me a believer in total immersion,
so I used to sing him Baptist hymns.
I also sang “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”
He stood up in the water and regarded me
steadily, moving his head a little.
Then he would disappear, then suddenly emerge
almost in the same spot, with a sort of shrug
as if it were against his better judgment.
Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,
the clear gray icy water . . . Back, behind us,
the dignified tall firs begin.
Bluish, associating with their shadows,
a million Christmas trees stand
waiting for Christmas. The water seems suspended
above the rounded gray and blue-gray stones.
I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,
slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,
icily free above the stones,
above the stones and then the world.
If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.
If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.
Maybe I love it partially because the landscape is familiar to me. I’m an East Coast girl who grew up in a fishing town. I grew up 10 minutes from the vast heaving Atlantic.
For me, “The Moose” is her greatest poem. Since it’s not as often anthologized as “One Art” and “At the Fishhouses,” it took me a while to learn of its existence. 15 years ago or so, I told my dad I was getting into Bishop. He asked if I knew her poem “The Moose.” I didn’t. He pulled out a book (he always knew where the right books were), and read it out loud to me. My father had an unforgettabe gravelly voice, warm and grumbly, and he was wonderful reading out loud. As much as I love “The Moose” (and I DO, it’s now in my Top Bishop poems), what I really love is that when I read it now, I still hear it in my father’s voice.
From narrow provinces
of fish and bread and tea,
home of the long tides
where the bay leaves the sea
twice a day and takes
the herrings long rides,
where if the river
enters or retreats
in a wall of brown foam
depends on if it meets
the bay coming in,
the bay not at home;
where, silted red,
sometimes the sun sets
facing a red sea,
and others, veins the flats’
lavender, rich mud
in burning rivulets;
on red, gravelly roads,
down rows of sugar maples,
past clapboard farmhouses
and neat, clapboard churches,
bleached, ridged as clamshells,
past twin silver birches,
through late afternoon
a bus journeys west,
the windshield flashing pink,
pink glancing off of metal,
brushing the dented flank
of blue, beat-up enamel;
down hollows, up rises,
and waits, patient, while
a lone traveller gives
kisses and embraces
to seven relatives
and a collie supervises.
Goodbye to the elms,
to the farm, to the dog.
The bus starts. The light
grows richer; the fog,
shifting, salty, thin,
comes closing in.
Its cold, round crystals
form and slide and settle
in the white hens’ feathers,
in gray glazed cabbages,
on the cabbage roses
and lupins like apostles;
the sweet peas cling
to their wet white string
on the whitewashed fences;
inside the foxgloves,
and evening commences.
One stop at Bass River.
Then the Economies
Lower, Middle, Upper;
Five Islands, Five Houses,
where a woman shakes a tablecloth
out after supper.
A pale flickering. Gone.
The Tantramar marshes
and the smell of salt hay.
An iron bridge trembles
and a loose plank rattles
but doesn’t give way.
On the left, a red light
swims through the dark:
a ship’s port lantern.
Two rubber boots show,
A dog gives one bark.
A woman climbs in
with two market bags,
brisk, freckled, elderly.
“A grand night. Yes, sir,
all the way to Boston.”
She regards us amicably.
Moonlight as we enter
the New Brunswick woods,
hairy, scratchy, splintery;
moonlight and mist
caught in them like lamb’s wool
on bushes in a pasture.
The passengers lie back.
Snores. Some long sighs.
A dreamy divagation
begins in the night,
a gentle, auditory,
slow hallucination. . . .
In the creakings and noises,
an old conversation
–not concerning us,
but recognizable, somewhere,
back in the bus:
talking, in Eternity:
names being mentioned,
things cleared up finally;
what he said, what she said,
who got pensioned;
deaths, deaths and sicknesses;
the year he remarried;
the year (something) happened.
She died in childbirth.
That was the son lost
when the schooner foundered.
He took to drink. Yes.
She went to the bad.
When Amos began to pray
even in the store and
finally the family had
to put him away.
“Yes . . .” that peculiar
affirmative. “Yes . . .”
A sharp, indrawn breath,
half groan, half acceptance,
that means “Life’s like that.
We know it (also death).”
Talking the way they talked
in the old featherbed,
peacefully, on and on,
dim lamplight in the hall,
down in the kitchen, the dog
tucked in her shawl.
Now, it’s all right now
even to fall asleep
just as on all those nights.
–Suddenly the bus driver
stops with a jolt,
turns off his lights.
A moose has come out of
the impenetrable wood
and stands there, looms, rather,
in the middle of the road.
It approaches; it sniffs at
the bus’s hot hood.
high as a church,
homely as a house
(or, safe as houses).
A man’s voice assures us
“Perfectly harmless. . . .”
Some of the passengers
exclaim in whispers,
“Sure are big creatures.”
“It’s awful plain.”
“Look! It’s a she!”
Taking her time,
she looks the bus over,
Why, why do we feel
(we all feel) this sweet
sensation of joy?
says our quiet driver,
rolling his r’s.
“Look at that, would you.”
Then he shifts gears.
For a moment longer,
by craning backward,
the moose can be seen
on the moonlit macadam;
then there’s a dim
smell of moose, an acrid
smell of gasoline.
Robert Lowell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, August 15, 1957:
Do you remember how at the end of that long swimming and sunning Stonington day after Carley’s removal by Tommy, we went up to, I think, the relatively removed upper Gross house and had one of those real fried New England dinners, probably awful. And we were talking about this and that about ourselves and I was feeling the infected hollowness of the Carley business draining out of my heart, and you said rather humorously yet it was truly meant, “When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.”
Seamus Heaney’s close read of “One Art”:
The first time “master” and “disaster” occurs, in stanza one, they are tactfully, elegantly, deprecatingly paired off. It wasn’t a disaster. The speaker is being decorous, good-mannered, relieving you of the burden of having to sympathize, easing you out of any embarrassed need to find things to say. The last time the rhyme occurs, however, the shocking traumatic reality of what happened almost overbrims the containing form. It was a disaster. It was devastatingly and indescribably so. And yet what the poem has not managed to do, in the nick of time, is to survive the devastating. The verb “master” places itself in the scales opposite its twin noun, “disaster,” and holds the balance. And the secret of the held balance is given in the parenthesis “(Write it!)”. As so often in Bishop’s work, the parenthesis (if you have ears to hear) is the place the hear the real truth. And what the parenthesis in ‘One Art’ tells us is what we always knew in some general way, but now know with an acute pang of intimacy, that the act of writing is an act of survival.
Some authors do not muse within themselves; they ‘think’ – like the vegetable-shredder which cuts into the life of a thing. Miss Bishop is not one of these frettingly intensive machines. Yet the rational considering quality in her work is its strength – assisted by unwordiness, uncontorted intentionalness, the flicker of impudence, the natural unforced ending.
Robert Lowell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, August 21st, 1947:
I’m glad you wrote me, because it gives me an excuse to tell you how much I liked your New Yorker fish poem. Perhaps, it’s your best. Anyway I felt very envious in reading it–I’m a fisherman myself, but all my fish became symbols, alas! The description has great splendor, and the human part, tone, etc., is just right. I question a little the word breast in the last four or five lines–a little too much in its context perhaps;but I’m probably wrong.
Elizabeth Bishop took her early bearings from Marianne Moore. They met, they corresponded, and Miss Moore’s approbation meant a poem could be let free into the world. For Bishop it was an invaluable apprenticeship, and she kept faith with Moore as long as she could, but her reticences and those of her master were different in kind. There is a clarity that the reader has to work for and a clarity that is, at least initially, less effortful, more enchanting.
Elizabeth Bishop is spectacular in being unspectacular.
Robert Lowell, 1965:
I am sure no living poet is as curious and observant as Miss Bishop. What cuts so deep is that each poem is inspired by her own tone, a tone of large, grave tenderness and sorrowing amusement. She is too sure of herself for empty mastery and breezy plagiarism, too interested for confession and musical monotony, too powerful for mismanaged fire, and too civilized for idiosyncratic incoherence. She has a humorous, commanding genius for picking up the unnoticed, now making something sprightly and right, and now a great monument. Once her poems, each shining, were too few. Now they are many. When we read her, we enter the classical serenity of a new country.
Elizabeth Bishop on Marianne Moore:
“[Marianne Moore]’d call me up and read me something when I was in New York [when she was doing the La Fontaine translations] – I was in Brazil most of that time – and say she needed a rhyme. She said that she admired rhymes and meters very much. It was hard to tell whether she was pulling your leg or not sometimes. She was Celtic enough to be somewhat mysterious about these things.”
Robert Lowell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, June 10th, 1957:
I think I read you with more interest than anyone now writing. I know I do, but I think I would even if it weren’t for personal reasons. “The Armadillo” is surely one of your three or four very best. I thought the title mistaken at first, a Moore name–though I suppose the armadillo is a much too popular and common garden animal for her–for an out-of-doors, personally seen and utterly un-Moore poem. However, “Armadillo” is right, for the little creature, given only five lines, runs off with the whole poem. Weak and armored, I suppose he is those people carrying balloons-illegal-to their local saint.
Your crucifix and torture (?) wheels in Flanders poem has a grave girlish jump to it…Also reread the poems you recited. How true that treasure of white sunlight and energy one has in the morning; how often I’ve blown it off into reading a novel. “A Summer’s Dream” seems to me a flattish (Jarrell adjective) variant of your exciting “Sunday, 4 A.M.” I like best the mackerel-crying stanza. “Armadillo” was surely by far the best poem ready by anyone that day.
How easy it is for me to lay it on, and mean it.
Elizabeth Bishop on Marianne Moore:
“‘Insomnia,’ which Marianne Moore said was a cheap love poem … Marianne was very opposed to that one … I don’t think she ever believed in talking about the emotions much.”
The moon in the bureau mirror
looks out a million miles
(and perhaps with pride, at herself,
but she never, never smiles)
far and away beyond sleep, or
perhaps she’s a daytime sleeper.
By the Universe deserted,
she’d tell it to go to hell,
and she’d find a body of water,
or a mirror, on which to dwell.
So wrap up care in a cobweb
and drop it down the well
into that world inverted
where left is always right,
where the shadows are really the body,
where we stay awake all night,
where the heavens are shallow as the sea
is now deep, and you love me.
Elizabeth Bishop, 1981:
I once admired an interview with Fred Astaire in which he refused to discuss ‘the dance,’ his partners, or his ‘career’ and stuck determinedly to golf.
Robert Lowell, blurb on Bishop’s Cold Spring:
Miss Bishop has a good heart and a good eye. She has three virtues, each in itself enough to make a poet. (1) She knows her own tongue. Her tone can be Venetian gorgeous or Quaker simple; she never falls into cant or miserliness. (2) Her abundance of description reminds one, not of poets, poor symbolic, abstract creatures–but of the Russian novelists. (3) In all matters of form, meter, rhythm, diction, timing, shaping, etc., she is a master.
Michael Schmidt, in Lives of the Poets:
Few poets of the century are as candid as Elizabeth Bishop. We know more about her from her poems, despite her reticence, her refusal to confess or provide circumstantial detail, than we do of Plath or Lowell or Sexton, who dramatize and partialize themselves. Bishop asks us to focus not on her but with her. Her disclosures are tactful: we can recognize them if we wish. Her reticence is “polite”. Given her vulnerability, she could have “gone to the edge”, as A. Alvarez likes poets to do, praising Plath and Lowell for their extremity. Instead she follows where William Cowper led, using language not to go to the edge but to find her way back from it; using poetry – in an eighteenth-century spirit – as a normative instrument. Even in her harshest poems, such an art is affirmative.
Elizabeth Bishop, interview in The Times, 1964:
I’ve only thought of one funny thing since I got here–that being in England is rather like going to the movies after you’ve read the book.
Robert Lowell, speech at celebration of Bishop’s poetry, 1964:
This is a very dear evening to me. Elizabeth Bishop is the contemporary poet that both I and Randall Jarrell admire the most. Her poems come slowly. You feel she never wrote a poem just to fill a page. If the poem stops coming, she’ll often put it away several years–or forever if it doesn’t come. I think she’s hardly ever written a poem that wasn’t a real poem. There’s a beautiful formal complement to all of Elizabeth’s poetry. I don’t think anyone alive has a better eye than she has, the eye that sees things and the mind behind the eye that remembers, and the person that remembers would be hard to characterize, but it’s a person with a good deal of tolerance and humor. Really, it defeats me to sum up the personality, but that’s far more important than the description, even.
Robert Lowell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, December 24, 1962:
I have thought of you, Dear, frequently every day. I hope our visit wasn’t crushingly fatiguing to you both. I don’t think any visitors were ever so sensitively and tirelessly entertained. I guess I was beginning to go off during the last two weeks in Brazil, and this must have been painful for you to watch or at least sense. When I got to Buenos Aires, my state zoomed sky-high and I am glad you didn’t see it. It’s hard for the controlled man to look back on the moment of chaos and claim. I shan’t try, but it was all me, and I am sorry you were touched by it. Please let us be as dear to each other as always.
Elizabeth Bishop, letter to Robert Lowell, August 27, 1964
My passion for accuracy may strike you as old-maidish–but since we do float on an unknown sea I think we should examine the other floating things that come our way very carefully; who knows what might depend on it?
Poet Randall Jarrell:
All her poems have written underneath, I have seen it.
For Elizabeth Bishop 4
By Robert Lowell
Have you seen an inchworm crawl on a leaf,
cling to the very end, revolve in air,
feeling for something to reach to something? Do
you still hang your words in air, ten years
unfinished, glued to your notice board, with gaps
or empties for the unimaginable phrase–
unerring Muse who makes the casual perfect?
“Poetry in English,” Time magazine, March 9, 1962
[Of Roethke, Lowell, and Bishop, Bishop is] the most limited and proficient of the three–indeed, the cool, eely slickness of her poems is sometimes repellent. They have little human warmth, no specific temperature. She seldom writes about people or their feelings. She writes about things and places with a woman’s eye as keen as any since Virginia Woolf’s. Above all, she has a gift of imagery.
Robert Lowell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, March 10, 1962
Did you see what Time did to us? Very impertinent, vulgar, and often meaningless. You are warm, interested in people and unslick–all just the opposite of what they said. Still, in their ugly way, they did their best by us, putting us at the top of our little decadent, post-war empyrean.
Elizabeth Bishop on Joseph Cornell:
“[Joseph] Cornell is superb. I first saw the Medici Slot Machine when I was in college. Oh, I loved it. To think one could have bought some of those things then. He was very strange. He got crushes on opera singers and ballet dancers. When I looked at his show in New York two years ago I nearly fainted, because one of my favorite books is a book he liked and used. It’s a little book by an English scientist who wrote for children about soap bubbles [Soap Bubbles: Their Colours and the Forces Which Mold Them, by Sir CV Noys, 1889]. His sister began writing me after she read Octavio Paz’s poem for Cornell that I translated. (She doesn’t read Spanish.) She sent me a German-French grammar that apparently he meant to do something with and never did. A lot of the pages were folded over and they’re all made into star patterns with red ink around them … He lived in what was called Elysian Park. That’s an awfully strange address to have.”
Robert Lowell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, January 4, 1960:
Your poem [“Brazil, January 1, 1502”] is one of your most beautiful, I think–wonderful description, the jungle turning into a picture, then into history and the jungle again, with a practical, absurd, sad, amused and frightened tone for the Christians. I have been re-reading [Edward] Lear whom you like so much. I guess it would be far-fetched to find his hand here; yet I think he would have enjoyed your feeling, your disciplined gorgeousness, your drawing, your sadness, your amusement.
The focus is often dreamlike in its fixedness: the dream can arrest, rewind, fast-forward. Casual contingencies are removed so that objects are, regardless of their histories or uses. Geographies, not histories: maps, the sea, the picture, the arresting and the setting down. The first poem in her first book is called “The Map.”
Any number of people are guilty of writing a complicated poem that has a certain amount of symbolism in it and a really difficult meaning, a wonderful poem to teach. Then you unwind it and you feel that the intelligence, the experience, whatever goes into it, is skin-deep. In Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Man-Moth,’ a whole new world is gotten out and you don’t know what will come after any one line. It’s exploring. And it’s as original as Kafka. She’s gotten a world, not just a way of writing. She seldom writes a poem that doesn’t have that exploratory quality; yet it’s very firm, it’s not like beat poetry, it’s all controlled.
Few poets of the century are as candid as Elizabeth Bishop. We know more about her from her poems, despite her reticence, her refusal to confess or provide circumstantial detail, than we do of Plath or Lowell or Sexton, who dramatize and partialize themselves. Bishop asks us to focus not on her but with her.
Robert Lowell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, October 3, 1961:
Your elegy is very lovely and pathetic, the best in the language of its kind, I think–I mean a piece on a real little child, memorialized from your own memories. The other good ones are either imaginary children, such as Ransom’s, or not personally remembered, as Jonson’s Salathiel Pavy. I have been thinking lately–your poems usually bring something of the sort to my mind–that there’s a side to writing that’s like a little bird swooping in to snatch a piece of bread, only there are so many birds bustling about, and I suppose the bread is always vanishing, so that only by miracle can the bird get it. That is, if one is very lucky and talented, there’s a way of writing that is actually believable, and beyond that, a way that is rich and interesting, and beyond that, a way that really gets the bread–then a bell rings and a poem is what we call immortal. That’s what you’ve done. Your little child is caught in all its childish, fairy story pomp and simplicity, and pushing in like black prongs are the years, autumn and maturity.
Robert Lowell, The Paris Review interview (1961):
The two I’ve been closest to are Elizabeth Bishop … and [Randall] Jarrell, and they’re different. Jarrell’s a great man of letters, a very informed man, and the best critic of my generation, the best professional poet … Elizabeth Bishop’s poems, as I said, are more personal, more something she did herself, and she’s not a critic but has her own tastes, which may be very idiosyncratic. I enjoy her poems more than anybody else’s.
She follows where William Cowper led, using language not to go to the edge, but to find her way back from it; using poetry – in an eighteenth century spirit – as a normative instrument. Even in her harshest poems, such an art is affirmative.
Robert Lowell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, January 23, 1963:
In a preface to Emily Dickinson, John Brinnin asks if she isn’t the greatest woman poet, brushes away the past, and then says only Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop (of the English poets of this century) reach her level.
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